Yankee Classic: A Strange Light over Starks

From Yankee Magazine April 1982 It was twilight, still and overcast, in Starks, Maine, on November 28, 1981, two days after Thanksgiving. Elsewhere in New England, store merchants were enjoying one of the year’s busiest shopping days. But you wouldn’t have known that in Starks. The town, with a population of 440, is strung along […]

By Michael Kimball

Jul 09 2008

From Yankee Magazine April 1982 It was twilight, still and overcast, in Starks, Maine, on November 28, 1981, two days after Thanksgiving. Elsewhere in New England, store merchants were enjoying one of the year’s busiest shopping days. But you wouldn’t have known that in Starks. The town, with a population of 440, is strung along Route 43 in the hills between Farmington and Madison, and if you asked anybody outside of Somerset County, he’d more than likely tell you he had never heard of Starks. At 5:00 that Saturday afternoon, Kenos Henry pulled off Route 43 onto the Brann Mills Road, where he was caretaking a farmhouse for some friends. He had been working all day, and now he had his heart set on some cold Thanksgiving turkey. As he pulled into the dooryard, half a mile down the remote dirt road he noticed an odd light, glowing deep red, motionless against the sky. He looked at it curiously. He had seen the same light before — actually three times since summer — above the farmhouse. The first time he hadn’t given it much thought, but the next time it had appeared, it was lower in the sky and had a golden glow around the red, and the barely discernible shape of two intersecting sickles or crescents. A satellite, to be sure, he had thought. But the third time, the thing had suddenly beamed a needle of red light right down to him. He had run into the house then and told his friend Roger, “Hey, there’s a satellite or something up in the sky, and it’s sending lasers down at me.” Kenos says he has always come up with some pretty wild stories, and this one didn’t sound much different from others he had told. Now, it was in the sky again, that same odd light, but this time something else caught his attention. It was coming down. Eleven miles away, in the town of Madison, Bud Hendsbee and his wife Helen backed their truck out of the driveway. They had decided to cap off a long, busy week by trying out the Fiddlehead, a popular new restaurant in Farmington, a leisurely 20-mile drive on Route 43, over the wide hills of Starks. Bud, a Somerset County deputy sheriff for 23 years, and Helen, a Madison selectwoman, both agree it was a decision they came to regret. In fact, Helen says she’ll probably never travel that road again. Kenos Henry was hungry. He could almost taste that turkey. But he couldn’t get out of his car, couldn’t take his eyes off that light in the sky. As he put it, “It was getting awful big, awful fast.” He could see the double golden sickles distinctly now, and a silvery light pulsated in the V-shaped area created by the apparent union of the sickles. “I thought I was seeing things, but I hadn’t had anything to drink for four or five days,” he said later. Suddenly it darted to the left, then back to the right, much faster than any plane could fly, and it kept getting brighter, closer. Willie, the black Lab farm dog, became agitated, barking up at the sky and racing around the yard. The thought of turkey was rapidly disappearing from Kenos’ mind. He was thinking only of backing calmly out of the dooryard and getting off that dirt road, when the thing shot a red beam down through the windshield into his eyes. “I don’t like telling people this, because they think you’re nuts, but, man, what I saw! I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to get any turkey. I’m getting this car out of here!’ I grabbed the dog, turned the car around, and left snow and ice flying for about forty feet.” Kenos pulled out of the Brann Mills Road onto Route 43 and drove about a mile over two hills to the trailer of his friend Mike Daigle. As he drove, he could still see the object behind him, out the side window, darting and bouncing in the sky, still appearing to grow in size. And he saw green and blue lights within it, beaming down at him, as if it were chasing him. He tore up Daigle’s driveway, threw open the car door, and turned the windshield wipers on — mistaking them in his panic for the ignition key. “I was shaking like this,” he said later, holding out a trembling hand. Meanwhile, Willie, still barking and whining at the sky, jumped out of the car and scampered away. Inside the trailer, Mike Daigle, Lisa Preble, and Artie Corrieri were relaxing at the kitchen table when Kenos came through the door, pale and wide-eyed. “Man,” he blurted, “you aren’t going to believe this!” And he proceeded to describe his close encounter, meeting with their skeptical looks and sarcastic remarks. “I thought he was playing a trick on us,” said Artie. “I thought it was a joke.” At Kenos’ insistence, however, they piled into his car to go have a look. They called briefly for Willie, but with no luck. The dog had run off, spooked, and there was no telling where he had gone. Driving back toward the farmhouse, Kenos peered off to the left, searching the skies where he had last seen the thing, again recounting his frantic story as he drove. Then as they approached the crest of the second hill, it appeared off to the right, higher in the sky and miles away. It looked like a star. “Look. There it is,” he said, pointing. “Nah,” Mike said. “That’s the North Star.” “No,” Artie said, “that’s Venus.” He began explaining the difference between heavenly bodies, when suddenly the object fell. “No kidding,” Artie later recounted, “it dropped fifteen degrees in about two or three seconds, down to the horizon.” It dropped like a stone through water, and then it just hung there in the sky ahead of them. “I thought maybe it was just a mirage or the way the road was,” Kenos said, “because every time I’d go ahead some, it would come forward some, and when I stopped, it would stop. But then, while we were stopped, it started weaving and bobbing and flashing its lights and coming down at us.” The Hendsbees were taking their time, enjoying the drive. The road through Starks was narrow and rugged, full of long hills and valleys, and the night was moonless and dark. Ahead, a car’s headlights bent over a hilltop, and the car plunged down the hill, weaving on the road. Bud pulled close to the right edge of the road and slowed down as the car approached. In his headlights Bud saw a black dog shoot across the road. He braked his truck, and the car came to a stop across from him. The driver of the car jumped out and retrieved the dog from the roadside. “Everything all right?’ Bud said to him. Kenos carried the trembling dog over to Bud’s truck. “Hey, don’t go up over that hill,” he warned. “There’s a UFO up there. Honest to God.” Bud could see that Kenos was genuinely terrified, and his story was emphatically backed up by Corrieri, from Kenos’ back seat, but Bud was not about to go back to Madison. The Hendsbees drove up the hill. As they neared the hilltop, they did notice a light in the sky far ahead in the direction of Farmington, and it was sweeping from side to side. Then it disappeared. So Bud and Helen Hendsbee drove on to Farmington to have their supper, and forgot all about the UFO. On the other side of town, on top of one of Route 43’s hills, Skip Mayhew answered a knock on his door. It was Kenos, with Lisa, Mike, and Artie. “Hey, Skip,” Kenos said, leading him to a window, “what do you think of this? That thing just chased us down the road, and was coming right down to us. You want to go back with us and see what it is?” “You guys are nuts,” Skip answered. “Hey, it’s right out there,” Kenos argued, going out the door and pointing out the light to Skip. It was high in the sky and far away now, and looked no bigger than a star. Skip went into the house, grabbed his high-powered rifle, and peered through the scope, focusing on the light, but as soon as he could make out its shape, it disappeared. Meanwhile, Bud and Helen were enjoying a fine dinner at the Fiddlehead. At 7:00 they paid the check and left for home. Well fed and relaxed, they drove on, listening to a country-and-western station out of Bangor, waiting for the truck’s heater to warm them. Soon they were traversing the dark hills of Starks, talking, completely unprepared for what was ahead. And then it was upon them. Helen grabbed Bud’s arm. “There it is!” she cried. He stopped the truck as the light rose before them, hovering imperiously above the hilltop, casting a brilliant light on the whole hill. Bud started up the hill again, shielding his eyes against the light, when suddenly it advanced toward them. He stopped again and watched it sink slowly down behind the trees to the left of the road. So Bud once again started up the hill, and the moment he did, the light sprang up and shone right through his windshield, blinding him. “Whatever that is,” Helen said, “it’s not going to let you over the hill.” So Bud shifted the truck into reverse and started backing down. There were no turnarounds, and with snow on either side of the road Bud had to back down the entire hill. As he maneuvered, Helen told him what the light was doing. At first it seemed to stay up in the air, but then Helen began to shout, “It’s coming toward us! It’s coming toward us!” “I kept backing down the hill and it kept coming toward us, dropping in altitude until it was about sixty feet off the ground and directly to the right of us,” Bud described. He stopped the truck again and rolled down the window to see if he could hear anything, perhaps a helicopter rotor — but the air was silent. Whatever propelled the light wasn’t making a sound. That was more than enough for the Hendsbees. Bud jockeyed the truck around on the road and backtracked to Route 148, a longer, more indirect route home. All day Sunday the Hendsbees debated whether or not to tell anybody what they had seen. To whom could they tell their story? “We never said we saw a UFO,” Helen says, “just a light, a floating light.” They knew that once the story was told they could expect a paragraph in the local paper and maybe some phone calls from friends, but they didn’t count on the barrage of inquiries and the utter invasion of their privacy that followed Bud’s call to the Waterville Sentinel. Monday morning’s Sentinel carried the story, as did many state television and radio news broadcasts. Calls began pouring into the Hendsbees’ home and to the sheriff’s department from friends, curious acquaintances, and reporters. A Boston radio talk show called, live, after midnight. A couple of researchers from Florida called, ready to fly up and hypnotize the couple. Enough was enough. Bud finally put his foot down. They had told the same story dozens of times and had no more to say about it. What they needed to do now was to forget about it. Besides, there were plenty of others who had seen the same thing and called the Hendsbees to tell them so. “They can get names and names and names of people in that area who’ve seen it,” he said. Whatever was in the Starks sky is, and will probably remain, a mystery. But there is reason to believe that the brilliant floating light was responsible for a real tragedy that Saturday evening. At 11:30 P.M. a 24-year-old woman was killed in Mercer, five miles southeast of Starks, when her car left the road on Route 2, an east-west road across the valley from, and roughly parallel to, Route 43. She had been driving alone, west from Skowhegan to her home in New Sharon, when, according to state police, she failed to negotiate a curve in the road and became airborne. Her car wasn’t found until the next morning, when a driver spotted the wreck 40 yards into the woods against a clump of trees. According to Leslie Bugbee, head of Paranormal Phenomenon Research, there are several disturbing details surrounding the accident that indicate that the driver may have seen the same light. First of all, those who knew her said that she was not normally a fast driver. State police estimated her speed at 91 mph at the time of impact. Second, she was not unfamiliar with the road; she made the same trip nearly every other day. Third, when she missed the curve and went off the road, she left no skid marks, as if she either hadn’t hit the brake pedal or hadn’t been able to see the road bend. Finally, and most disturbing of all, there is evidence that on this dark, overcast night she had been wearing her sunglasses. Tinted, nonprescription glasses — which were always methodically stored in their case when she wasn’t wearing them — were found beside the wreck, with blood and skin tissue on them, broken at the left temple. The woman died from injuries to the left side of her head. The first sighting to be labeled a “flying saucer” by the press occurred on June 24, 1947, when nine disc-shaped objects, looking like “saucers skipping over water,” were witnessed by an Idaho businessman flying his plane near Mount Rainier in Washington. Since that brave first pronouncement by the press, the UFO has become a national obsession, one that waxes and wanes with each new sighting. There is a certain thrill, a wonderful mystique surrounding UFOs. Interplanetary beings have been credited with Earth’s ancient architecture, artifacts, and scientific advances. On the other hand, for every unidentifiable flying object witnessed, corroborated by sober, responsible citizens — and even photographed — there is an official to pooh-pooh it. “Swamp-gas,” “light phenomenon,” “swarming gypsy moths,” “a child’s toy” are official explanations that seldom satisfy a shaken witness who has, by the truth of all his senses, experienced a genuine encounter. On November 15, 1975, in Caribou, Maine, a Canadian border town, four town police officers, one state civil defense officer, three Aroostook County deputy sheriffs, many on-duty personnel at Limestone Air Force Base, and several police officers from nearby communities witnessed a sighting quite like the one in Starks. Again it appeared as a bright light in the sky, whose size and shape were undeterminable. Some people saw blinking red and green lights; one officer saw exhaust through binoculars. All witnesses agreed that as it stayed all night in the Caribou sky it never made a sound. The next day a spokesperson at Loring Air Force Base said, “It seems to be either a planet or a star.” It is certainly true that atmospheric conditions can refract and magnify the light from a star or a planet, making it appear larger and brighter than normal. Ray Fowler, director of investigations for Mutual UFO Network in Seguin, Texas, suggests that the Starks sighting was actually Venus, “the Queen of the UFOs,” since it was sighted in the west where Venus rises. The planet, normally at its brightest late in the year, could have shown through a thin cloud cover at Starks and been magnified. A prism effect created by thick air could have caused it to show different colored lights, and the planet could have appeared to observers to be moving up and down, with them, or even toward them, depending on their movement on the road. But the Hendsbees were traveling east, back to Madison, when they encountered it ahead of them. Dr. Donald Robinson, a science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, discusses “looming,” a rare light phenomenon in which a faraway surface light can appear to hang in the air and even move through the air if the light source is moving. Both men would have to be more convincing to persuade the Starks witnesses that what they experienced that Saturday evening was a light phenomenon or a magnified planet — for such innocent phenomena have no intelligence, do not react. “I felt that I challenged this thing, whatever it was, for about 20 minutes,” said Deputy Hendsbee. “I was determined to go up that hill because that’s the way I had to go home. And three times it drove me back.” “Whatever was up there was going to conquer that hill,” Mrs. Hendsbee added. “I’ve never seen Bud scared of anything before this.” “I’ve been a police officer for 23 years,” Bud Hendsbee stated. “I’ve been shot at, had bullets go through my vehicle. I’ve been trapped in a well during a house fire . . . but it’s not the same. You don’t know what this is! It’s going to and fro, up and down, floating in the air. You don’t know if the thing’s going to come through your windshield like a bolt of lightning. “So then you’ve gone through it all in a 20-minute period. Now you’re stuck with it! You’re stuck with this feeling and you don’t know how long it’s going to take to overcome it.”